On January 16, Uniting to Combat NTDs released “From Promises to Progress,” the first annual report on the London Declaration on NTDs. The report details the progress made by global partners that signed onto the London Declaration one year ago. Notable successes include leading pharmaceutical companies donating treatments for 100% of drug requests in endemic countries and the development of new NTD control plans in over forty countries. The past year has also seen regulatory approval for two new NTD diagnostics: a new test for lymphatic filariasis and the first rapid test for sleeping sickness developed by the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics.
Alongside this report, WHO also launched its second NTD report, “Sustaining the Drive to Overcome the Global Impact of Neglected Tropical Diseases.” The report targets two diseases for global eradication: guinea worm disease by 2015 and yaws by 2020. WHO also reports successes in preventive treatment, noting that 711 million people received treatment for at least one NTD in 2010 and projecting that these treatments will continue to reach more individuals in the future. However, there is still significant work to be done. Diseases like African sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis remain extremely difficult and costly to treat. There has been a 30-fold increase in dengue in the past 50 years and there is the potential for a global dengue epidemic, but we lack the appropriate tools to control and treat the virus. Whether it is scientific research to develop new drugs or operational research to develop the most effective control plans, additional investment in NTD research is crucial. Despite these challenges, Dr. Chan, Director-General of WHO, says that “the prospects for success have never been so strong.” The more we can raise awareness about these diseases that primarily affect the 1.4 billion people under poverty, the more we can do to mobilize resources for the global fight to combat NTDs. We want to make sure we continue turning prospects into actual success.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
An article in the most recent issue of The Scientist highlighted the importance of affordable diagnostics for global health. Although scientific advances have improved treatment options for many global diseases, a lack of effective, low-cost diagnostics hinders the health of many in the developing world. For example, medicines to treat HIV and tuberculosis have been life-saving for many individuals, but they can cause liver damage and patients on these medications must be monitored. However, the primary test for liver damage requires expensive equipment that is simply not available in low-income countries. To solve this problem, a Massachusetts biotech company, Diagnostics For All, developed a 10 cent paper-based test that can diagnose liver damage with a single drop of blood.
Other U.S.-based companies are working on similar low-cost diagnostics. In Texas, Global BioDiagnostics Corp is developing a more effective test for tuberculosis that will cost just $5. Both of these projects are excellent models for incorporating the idea of access into the research process and designing products that can actually be utilized in low-resource settings. However, there is often not enough money for companies to develop these kinds of products. In fact, a principal investigator at PATH says that “the problem [with low-cost diagnostics] is almost always funding.” Therefore, it is crucial to increase funding for affordable diagnostics. Not only would increased investment support these U.S.-based companies, but the end products could truly transform health care in the developing world.
Update: Another article, published in The Scientist on January 10, also addresses the urgent need for better diagnostics in resource-limited countries. In addition to making diagnostics more affordable, truly successful new diagnostics must also be “sensitive, specific, user-friendly, rapid, equipment-free and deliverable” and these considerations must be built into the R&D process. Overcoming these research challenges hinges not only on additional funding, but collaboration between research companies, the healthcare industry and local governments. Several Product Development Partnerships (PDPs) are leading the charge in these kinds of innovative collaborations. For example, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), a PDP based in Geneva, Switzerland, is working with manufacturers, health organizations and ministries of health and developing diagnostics from the initial design to the operational research phase to determine the diagnostic’s efficacy in a low resource setting. The importance of these kinds of new tests, which will result in more appropriate treatment plans that can save lives and money, cannot be overlooked.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern